The Pantheon Assembly Rooms, the first important building designed by the leading Neo-Classical architect James Wyatt (1746–1813), had been erected in Oxford Street in 1772. In 1790 they were converted into an opera house, under the management of Robert Bray O’Reilly, with William Hodges as ‘Inventor and Painter of the Decorations’. Hodges painted a view of the interior, to which William Pars added figures, shortly after the building was opened; the picture is now in Temple Newsam House, Leeds.1
On 30 April 1791 a ‘W Turner’ began to work in the painting room, continuing there until the building was burnt down on 14 January 1792. Arson was strongly suspected, and rumour suggested that the scene painting room had been the source of the blaze. Curtis Price has proposed, partly on the evidence of signatures on receipts, that ‘W Turner’ was the sixteen-year-old J.M.W. Turner, who showed this finished watercolour of the Pantheon immediately after the fire at the Academy exhibition of 1792. A professional connection with the building would explain his interest, although the fire might well have attracted his attention in any case. It has been pointed out by Judith Milhous and others that the salary of the Pantheon’s ‘W Turner’ was far in excess of what a sixteen-year-old student might have expected to earn, that the signatures of the two Turners, which appear respectively in the receipts of the Pantheon and in the Royal Academy’s Schools books, despite a superficial similarity, are in fact by different hands, and that the identification is therefore probably erroneous.2 Turner was to go on to draw several of Wyatt’s buildings or restorations, including Salisbury Cathedral, Fonthill, New College and Christ Church, Oxford, and the Brocklesby Mausoleum (see elsewhere in the present catalogue).
The view of the façade of the Pantheon itself, together with its immediately adjacent buildings, is taken from Turner’s pencil study (Tate D17127; Turner Bequest CXCV 156). His finished watercolour of the interior of the ruin3 (see under Tate D00122; Turner Bequest IX B) was formerly thought to have been the work exhibited at the Royal Academy. He seems to have derived his general approach to the scene, with its lively representative figures, from the large London views of Thomas Malton and Edward Dayes, e.g. Malton’s St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden, of about 1787 (Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, D.1951–14) and Dayes’s Buckingham House, St James’s Park of 1790, in the Victoria and Albert Museum (1756–1871). Finberg read the signature as ‘Wm. Turner, 1792’, noting that the date was ‘very indistinct, and perhaps questionable’.
See Andrew Wilton and Ilaria Bignamini eds., Grand Tour: The Lure of Italy in the Eighteenth Century, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1996, p.291 no.253, reproduced in colour.
Ivan Moseley, ‘Turner and Music – revisited’, to be published.
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.303 no.28, reproduced.